Ready for the Cold

Ready for the Cold

Preventing, recognizing and treating hypothermia and frostbite.

Record cold temperatures can lead to frostbite and hypothermia.

Record cold temperatures can lead to frostbite and hypothermia. Photo by Marilyn Campbell.

Local Shelters

For those who are not able to seek shelter, social service providers in Virginia and Maryland are ramping up efforts to provide shelter to those who need to get out of the cold.

For more information:

Fairfax County

703-691-2131 or http://fairfaxcou...">fairfaxcounty.gov

City of Alexandria

703-548-7500 or http://alexandria...">alexandriava.gov

Montgomery County

240-777-3289 or http://montgomery...">montgomerycountym...


703-228-1300 or 703-228-1010


Frigid temperatures and the chill of winter can usher in dangerous health conditions, particularly for those most vulnerable: the elderly and young children. Two of the most prevalent cold-weather ills are hypothermia and frostbite. For those who have to be outside when it is dangerously cold, knowing the warning signs and prevention techniques for these conditions are the keys to keeping them at bay, say health care providers.

"Even a typical winter in this area can be dangerous," said Amy Talbot, Ph.D, of George Mason University. "But extreme conditions can make it even worse for those most vulnerable."

Hypothermia, which occurs when one's body core temperature drops, can develop more quickly than many people realize, says Talbot. "Obviously feeling very cold is a warning sign, but also shivering and experiencing signs that the cold is affecting your brain, so feeling disoriented, stumbling or losing balance easily, unusual speech pattern or changes in personality."

Frostbite is when the skin and underlying tissue are damaged by cold temperatures, says Beth Lowe, RN, a private-duty nurse in Arlington. "During the beginning stages of frostbite, you might see your skin turn red and you'll feel numb or tingling or stinging," she said. "The main thing to remember is not to try to re-warm your own skin, because you can do more damage. It's best to seek emergency medical treatment."

Dressing in layers and wearing shoes that are appropriate for extreme cold are keys to preventing hypothermia and frostbite, advises Carolyn Johnson, Ph.D. of Montgomery College. "When it's extremely cold you want to wear clothing that traps your body temperature and protects you from cold air and wind," she said. "A basic formula to keep in mind: a base layer that should be made from a fabric that wicks away moisture. The second layer should trap heat so it should be made of a polyester fleece over something similar. The top layer should be waterproof and windproof."

Lowe recommends avoiding cotton clothing during the extreme cold because if it gets wet, it can make you cold. "Many of these preventative measure are things that most people already know, but may not think about until it's too late," she said.

Another preventative component, says Talbot, is nutrition. Both food and liquids can help keep one's body warm. "Skipping a meal can make you more susceptible to hypothermia and frostbite," she said. "It's important to eat carbs and protein for energy when you're going to be outside for a prolonged period of time, like if you're hiking or playing sports."

If you believe that you are beginning to develop frostbite or hypothermia, Lowe says in order to avoid advancing the seriousness of the condition, move your body by doing jumping jacks or some other vigorous movement and get out of the frigid elements. "There's no set amount of time that it takes for [hypothermia or frostbite] to develop, so it's important to keep an eye on those who are most vulnerable. But once you notice the warning signs you can try to stop the conditions before they advance, by drinking plenty of fluids, eating carbs and getting inside to a warmer temperature."